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Dessert for Dinner!

March 21, 2014

Calling all sweet lovers and serial entertainers: Dessert-only dining, longtime purview of prix fixes and specialty boutiques, will be your new favorite get-together theme. Equal parts strategy and irreverence, this trend is worth re-creating at home — and we’ve got all the party tips and menu ideas you need to get started.

Far from a cop-out, a sweets-only menu lets dessert escape the shadow of ambitious (and filling) mains, so push yourself beyond basic Bundts and cleansing sorbets. After all, life’s too short not to eat dessert first — or only.

Planning: What’s the (Sugar) Rush?

The key to a leisurely, balanced non-meal is pacing. We recommend three courses: one to awaken the palate, one to wow the senses, and one to gently fill any remaining stomach space. We’ll share a few different options for all three — feel free to mix and match your favorites.

Strategy: Eat Sweet, Look Sharp

This is not the time for family-style comfort food or towering showstoppers meant for a crowd. Embrace plating, embellishments, individual servings, and multicomponent recipes you might otherwise deem too fussy to end a big meal. After all, all eyes will be on dessert.

Related: 14 New, Lighter Comfort Food Ideas

First Course: Taste-Bud Pick-Me-Up

Mini Ginger-Almond Cheesecakes

No fancy pans are required to make these mini cheesecakes: they’re made in cupcake tins. Plus, only the crumb crust is baked, so the filling simply needs to be chilled.

1 1/2 cups gingersnap crumbs (from about 30 cookies)
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract
3/4 cup cold heavy cream
2 tablespoons sliced blanched almonds (optional), toasted

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line 10 standard muffin cups with cupcake liners. In a food processor, pulse together cookie crumbs, granulated sugar, salt, and butter until combined. Divide crumb mixture among cupcake liners, firmly pressing into bottoms and up sides. Bake until crusts are browned and fragrant, 10 minutes. Let cool completely in pan on a wire rack at room temperature.

2. In a medium bowl, using an electric mixer, beat cream cheese on high until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add confectioners’ sugar and almond extract and beat until smooth. In another medium bowl, with clean beaters, beat cream on high until stiff peaks form, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir one-third the whipped cream into cream cheese mixture, then gently fold in remaining. Divide mixture among cooled crusts and refrigerate until set, 1 hour (or up to overnight). To serve, top with almonds if desired.

Related: Delicious Desserts in 15 Minutes or Less

First Course: Call on Crunch

Biscotti Bites

Get the irresistible crunch of traditionally twice-baked biscotti from a single quick stint in the oven by scooping the dough into bite-size mounds. These poppers have the same silky chocolate dip as the classics sold in coffee shops but offer surprising add-ins (think grapefruit zest and shredded coconut).The dipped cookies can be stored in a single layer in a cool place for up to a week.

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups fine cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
3/4 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups sweetened shredded coconut
2 tablespoons finely grated grapefruit zest (from 2 small grapefruits)
11 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
Fine sanding sugar, for sprinkling

1. Whisk together flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt.

2. Beat butter with a mixer on medium speed until smooth. Add granulated sugar and beat until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in eggs, 1 at a time, until well combined. Add flour mixture and beat on low speed until just combined. Then beat in coconut, grapefruit zest, and 5 ounces chocolate until evenly distributed.

3. Drop heaping teaspoonfuls of dough, spaced 1 inch apart, on parchment-lined baking sheets. Sprinkle tops with sanding sugar. Refrigerate 30 minutes.

4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake, rotating sheets halfway through, until golden, 18 to 20 minutes. Let cool completely on baking sheets set on wire racks.

5. Melt remaining chocolate in a bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water, stirring until smooth. Dip bottoms of cooled cookies in melted chocolate, scrape off excess against rim of bowl, and set on parchment-lined baking sheets. Refrigerate until chocolate is set, about 30 minutes.

Related: 47 Ways to Maximize Space in Your Kitchen

Second Course: Classic Turn

Lemon Tartlets with Meringue Caps

Always-impressive meringue is a natural choice for your “main.”

Thin tuile cookies are baked, then folded into tartlet shells while still warm. Once cooled, each ruffled cup is filled with vibrant, sweet lemon curd and topped with a playful meringue curlicue.

For the Lemon Curd
6 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest, plus 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (about 3 lemons total)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces

For the Meringue Caps
3 large egg whites, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar

For the Shells
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
2 large egg whites, room temperature
1/2 cup sifted all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Make the shells: Put butter and sugar into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment; mix on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy. Mix in egg whites, one at a time. Mix in flour and vanilla.

2. Spoon 1 scant teaspoon batter onto a rimmed baking sheet lined with a nonstick baking mat. Using the back of a teaspoon, spread into a 3-inch circle. Repeat 4 times. Bake until golden, 10 to 12 minutes. Immediately transfer cookies, one at a time, to inverted small tartlet shells or brioche molds; gently press to shape. Let set, about 30 seconds. Repeat with remaining batter. If cookies become too cool to shape, return them to oven for 20 seconds. Shells can be stored in an airtight container up to 3 days.

3. Reduce oven temperature to 200 degrees. Make the meringue caps: Put egg whites and sugar into the bowl of an electric mixer set over a pan of simmering water; whisk until sugar has dissolved. Attach bowl to mixer fitted with the whisk attachment; beat on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form and meringue is cool, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a pastry bag fitted with a 7/16-inch star tip (such as Ateco No. 825). Pipe 20 spirals, 1 1/4 inches round and 2 inches high, onto baking sheets lined with parchment, spacing about 1 inch apart. Bake 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 150 degrees. Bake until dry but not brown, about 2 hours more. Transfer meringues to a wire rack; let cool completely. Meringues can be stored in an airtight container up to 3 days.

4. Make the curd: Whisk egg yolks, lemon zest and juice, and sugar in a heavy, medium saucepan. Cook, stirring constantly, over medium-low heat until mixture registers 160 degrees on a candy thermometer, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in salt. Add butter, 1 piece at a time, stirring after each addition until smooth. Pour curd through a fine sieve into a medium bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing it directly onto surface. Refrigerate until cold and set, at least 1 hour (up to 2 days).

5. To serve, spoon 2 teaspoons curd into each shell. Top each with a meringue cap.

Related: 22 Chicken Dinner Recipes in Less Than 30 Minutes

Second Course: Get Cute

Mini Eclairs with Strawberries and Cream

Don’t fight your inner six-year-old — embrace a tea-party-chic aesthetic.

These airy eclairs are relatively simple to make, thanks to choux (cream-puff) pastry, which can be mixed, piped, and frozen ahead of time.

1/4 cup whole milk
1/4 cup water
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
Vanilla Cream
Macerated Berries
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment. Bring milk, water, butter, and salt to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Remove from heat, and stir in flour. Return to heat, and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until mixture pulls away from sides of pan, about 4 minutes. Transfer to the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium speed to cool slightly, about 1 minute. With machine running, add eggs, 1 at a time, mixing well after each addition. Transfer dough to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch round tip.

2. Pipe twenty 2 1/2-inch-long eclairs onto each sheet. Bake until eclairs rise and are golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer to wire rack to cool.

3. Split eclairs in half lengthwise using a serrated knife. Pipe vanilla cream onto eclair bottoms. Spoon macerated berries on top of cream, and sandwich with eclair tops. Dust with confectioners’ sugar. Serve immediately.

4. Bake the mini eclairs the day you plan on serving them.

Third Course: Let It Steep

No-Bake Espresso Cremes Brulees

Espresso cremes brulees mimic the meal-end coffee.

For an elegant touch, serve Cognac with this dessert. It will complement the caramel flavors of the burnt-sugar topping.

6 ounces white chocolate, coarsely chopped
3 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons instant-espresso powder
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Coarse salt
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup whole milk
1/4 cup raw sugar

1. Place chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Arrange four 4 1/2-inch creme brulee dishes (1 inch deep) on a baking sheet. Freeze.

2. Meanwhile, whisk together yolks, espresso, granulated sugar, and a pinch of salt until sugar has almost dissolved. Bring cream and milk to a boil in a saucepan; gradually whisk about half into yolk mixture. Return mixture to saucepan; whisk. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring, until mixture is thick and reaches 175 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 6 minutes; pour over chocolate, and whisk until chocolate has melted and is smooth. Divide among molds, and freeze until firm but not frozen, 45 to 55 minutes.

3. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon raw sugar onto each custard; shake off excess. Caramelize tops using a handheld kitchen torch.

Second Course: Go Dark

Triple-Chocolate Mousse Cake

Here’s where dinner party guests become friends for life. With three shades of chocolate, these cakes are as pleasing to the eye as they are to the sweet tooth.

Vegetable-oil cooking spray
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, room temperature
1/4 cup whole milk
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Individual Chocolate Mousse
2 ounces solid semisweet chocolate

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place eight 6-ounce (3 1/2-inch diameter) ramekins on a rimmed baking sheet, and coat with cooking spray; set aside.

2. Stir flour, cocoa powder, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer. Attach bowl to mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add egg, milk, oil, vanilla, and 1/4 cup water; mix on medium-low speed until smooth and combined, about 3 minutes.

3. Divide batter evenly among prepared ramekins. Bake until a cake tester inserted into the centers comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack; let cool completely. Run a knife around sides of cakes; unmold. Cakes can be refrigerated, wrapped in plastic, up to 1 day.

4. Trim each cake to 1 inch high. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cut eight 10 3/4-by-4-inch strips of parchment paper. Wrap a parchment collar around base of each cake, keeping bottom flush with baking sheet. Secure each collar with tape; set aside.

5. Transfer bittersweet-chocolate mousse to a large pastry bag fitted with a large round tip (such as Ateco #808). Pipe a 1-inch layer of mousse into each parchment collar. Refrigerate until mousse is set, about 20 minutes. Repeat with milk chocolate mousse, piping on top of the bittersweet chocolate mousse. Refrigerate at least 4 hours and up to overnight.

6. Microwave semisweet chocolate until slightly warm but not melted, about 30 seconds. Scrape at a 45-degree angle with a vegetable peeler, forming curls. Before serving cakes, remove parchment collars, and garnish with chocolate curls.

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